Embracing Complexity

Just a quick note to bring your attention the September issue of Harvard Business Review, which is on complexity!  Michael J. Mauboussin is interviewed in an article title “Embracing Complexity“.

Mauboussin is the author of “Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition. ”  He touches briefly on Complex Adaptive Systems, like ecosystems, and how they defy the Newtonian reductionist models.  An ant colony is an example:

If you examine the colony on the colony level, forgetting about the individual ants, it appears to have the characteristics of an organism. It’s robust. It’s adaptive. It has a life cycle. But the individual ant is working with local information and local interaction. It has no sense of the global system. And you can’t understand the system by looking at the behavior of individual ants.

Not wanting to compare office workers to ants, but we find ourselves in a situation in many cases of trying to define a concrete process when in reality no such process exists.

That’s the essence of a complex adaptive system—and the thing that’s so vexing. Emergence disguises cause and effect. We don’t really know what’s going on.

His biggest warning is not to believe simplified models.  He points out that we are wired to construct simplified models.

…humans are incredibly good at linking cause and effect—sometimes too good. Ten thousand years ago most cause and effect was pretty clear. And our brains evolved to deal with that.

But it means that when you see something occur in a complex adaptive system, your mind is going to create a narrative to explain what happened—even though cause and effect are not comprehensible in that kind of system.

By thinking you understand a system, you might act.  But acting on a system you don’t understand can have surprising consequences.  He gives a good example of feeding elk in Yellowstone caused a reduction in trout population.  The inter-dependencies of an ecosystem are not obvious, and so it is with businesses as well.   He points out that:

  • We listen to experts even when we know they can’t possibly know what is really going on — reminding me of The Black Swan by Taleb.
  • Workers don’t share information very well.

By recognizing that complex systems don’t reduce to simple rules, he offers some techniques that a manager can use to make better decisions.

OK, I admit it, I am sucker for any article about complexity and the limitations of Newtonian / Cartesian thinking.  Those who have followed me know that Adaptive Case Management is focused on helping organizations to support precisely this kind of complex work patterns.


12 thoughts on “Embracing Complexity

  1. Good Stuff, Keith. Finally my long term argument that complex adaptive systems, complexitiy versus complicatedness, and emergence are relevant for business strategy and processes is being considered as relevant by the mainstream. I referenced the article two days ago in discussing ‘Social BPM Methodology: The Triple Oxymoron’ – http://isismjpucher.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/social-bpm-methodology-the-triple-oxymoron/

    I pointed out that it is the emergence aspect of complexity has to be considered for innovation. Just adding social communication to BPM is not really social. It is a marketing gag. The same is true for ACM. Either you truly empower people to create and adapt processes or you won’t get benefits from using social networking emergence: ‘Rather than relying on analysis, we need to rely on technology empowerment for social business process execution, which is not addressed by today’s Social BPM approaches. Real-world social processes emerge and adapt continuously and holistically from all aspects of hierarchy: top-down, bottom-up, inside–out and outside-in.’

    • Was thinking of you when writing this as I know this is one of your favorite subjects. I am hoping that these few articles in HBR will legitimize the whole concept behind Mastering the Unpredictable to the business crowd.

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for calling out the article. It is great to see business leaders promoting awareness of complex adaptive systems and requisite variety.

    Side note – ant colonies, bee hives and termite mounds are great examples of emergence but poor analogies for Adaptive Case Management.

    “Complex adaptive systems are one of nature’s big solutions, so biology is full of great examples. Ant colonies are solving very complicated, very challenging problems with no leadership, no strategic plan, no Congress.”

    …and no freedom, individuality or self-expression.

    Mauboussin clearly doesn’t espouse that for human organizations, rather he promotes the opposite – cognitive diversity, wisdom of crowds, decision flexibility to allow mutation and selection. He’s a humanist.

    We can’t replicate through authority and planning, what ants do instinctively (David Elton Trueblood, 1964 http://mises.org/daily/4221).

    ACM is loose choreography, not tight orchestration.


  3. Dave, excellent comments, as usual.

    Absolutely correct: the ant colony is an example of how colony behavior emerges from the individual behavior. Of course, an ant colony is not a literal model for a office of knowledge workers. An ant’s repertoire of actions consists of a few things like hunt around for food, and drag some home when found, etc. The humans in a human organization are far more flexible.

    It is true that ants do not need ACM to get their jobs done. ACM is an approach to allow knowledge workers to manage the information necessary to be informed and to make good decisions about specific cases.

    However, it would be a misrepresentation to say that an ant colony is controlled by tight orchestration. An individual ant has freedom of self expressions to the degree that an ant can express anything. Ant behavior is bounded by their instincts and physical limitations. But they are not centrally managed nor constrained in any manner other than their own limitations. There is no preconceived “plan” for the colony.

    While a human is obviously much more flexible than an ant, human behavior is also bounded by physical / instinctual constraints, along with social and cultural rules as well. We say that a case manager is free to do anything, but we don’t literally mean that: in fact there are a huge set of rules, regulations, and social norms that constrain a case worker behavior. Freedom of expression is about finding a way to accomplish things without violating too many of the rules. Like the ant colony, freedom of expression of a case manager is limited, but NOT because of tight centralized orchestration. The behavior of the organization emerges from the actions of individuals.

    It is the complexity of these constraints, and the inability to reduce them to a concrete simplified plan that works in every case, that justifies the ACM approach.

  4. Pingback: Living With Complexity | Collaborative Planning & Social Business

  5. Ha! My “side note”, was to simply to high-light that self-organizing without individuality/self is poor “analogy” for human organization. These are common references, but it contains a contradiction in conflict with ACM ‘mission’ we’ve discussed on LinkedIn. I think that holds, though I enjoyed your riposte.

  6. Pingback: Living With Complexity | Collaborative Planning & Social Business | Business Process and Adaptive Case Management News and Information

  7. There’s been a lot of interesting AI / Robotics work showing how the interaction of actually quite primitive directives can have the appearance of intelligence (we tend to anthropomorphize and see intelligence rather than just the interplay of basic imperatives, programmed or instinctual).

    The human abilities to generalize from specifics, discriminate specifics from the general case, and organize information structurally, are perhaps our most defining capabilities. These abilities allow us to deal with a complex world. If we don’t rely on simplifications and generalizations, we’d never act at all (information overload). However, acting on these generalizations, it is important to remember the distinction between correlation and causation! One can give examples where human assumption of cause and effect lead to the wrong answer. But there are so many more where the human assumption works well. One does not have to understand how ants work to learn that if you leave a piece of bred with jelly on it in the grass, soon ants will find it and form a food line. It is tempting to believe the world is too complicated for humans, but I personally reject that notion – at the right level of abstraction, things are simpler. Predicting a single human behavior is harder than predicting how a group of humans will behave (the science behind statistical sampling / polling).

    I’m not exactly disagreeing with the sentiments of the comment thread, but I’ll leave you with this thought. At some level, the relationships between two people are complicated. The sum of many individual actions, reactions, interactions. Too complicated to compute. Too complicated to explain. And you can’t possibly know what either of them is truly thinking – what is inside their brain. The ultimate black box. But, my human mind has a very simple way of simplifying this that cannot be argued with. I love my family. There are people in my life I label, without reservation, “friend”. Maybe the world isn’t as complicated as we’d like to believe when it comes to the important stuff- it just looks that way when you get into the weeds.

    • Scott, thanks for the comment. The human brain is a complex adaptive system as well as the working environment. As you point out, people are particularly good at summing up a situation and deciding what to do, usually with a simplified model of the real situation. The simplified model is OK because people are capable of reassessing, and “changing their mind” in the middle of things to take a different tack. To put this in real terms: a person shows up at work every day not because they do exactly the same thing to get there every day, but because individual compensate for unforeseen occurrences that are encountered. This is the most fascinating part of this whole subject: how it can be unpredictable at the detail level, and still, at a high level, be extremely stable. Your last paragraph makes this case quite well.

  8. Hi.
    I am writing my Masters Dissertation about CAS in Healthcare Systems and Services, i already have some literature about complexity, but can anyone suggest some articles or books that might embrace this subject?
    Thank you!
    Ricardo Garcia

  9. Pingback: Count me in for Simplicity » Process for the Enterprise

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